Parliament recalled for rare Saturday sitting to pass COVID-19 wage subsidy bill
OTTAWA -- The House of Commons and Senate are being recalled on Saturday for a second emergency parliamentary sitting, to study and pass an expansion to the wage subsidy program.
The rare weekend sitting is scheduled to run from 12:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. EDT in the House of Commons, with senators then convening at 4 p.m. to consider the legislation as passed by MPs.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez sent a letter to the House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota requesting the sitting, after coming to an agreement with the opposition parties, who have had a copy of the new bill—titled “a second Act respecting certain measures in response to COVID-19”— since Monday.
The Conservatives have framed the second bill as a “fix” to the first, while the Liberals say the legislation would enact the “biggest economic measures in our lifetimes.”
The government and opposition parties have been negotiating for days when the recall would happen, in order to see the $73-billion COVID-19 aid program come into effect, and what longer-term measures could be put in place, like a virtual House of Commons to keep the Liberals accountable during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
It remains unclear exactly what the terms of the agreement to sit are in terms of further accountability measures, which are said to still be subject to ongoing discussions.
“I look forward to working together in the House to pass this bill quickly,” Rodriguez tweeted.
The opposition parties say they are supportive of the help for Canadian businesses but are pushing the government to add additional interim assistance measures. Outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has been pushing for in-person sittings of the House of Commons, where opposition parties could question the minority Liberals, with a limited number of MPs.
In an interview on CTV’s Power Play Scheer said his party thinks that if ministers and the prime minister can give in-person briefings to the media and officials, that they should be able to do so for opposition parties in the House of Commons as well, and that it doesn’t have to be an “either or” scenario with virtual sittings.
“We are not suggesting that we break the public health direction. We are talking about a representative number of MPs from each party, in addition to exploring virtual sittings and other measures that can ensure that more MPs from every region can participate,” Scheer said.
Speaker of the Senate George Furey’s office said as was the case for the first recall, “steps will be taken to ensure the health and safety of senators and staff involved in Chamber operations, including limiting the number of employees required to work on-site to support the sitting.”
An initial 10 per cent subsidy was included in the $107-billion aid package passed during the first emergency sitting of the House that went overnight last month, but the government rolled out a massive expansion in the days following that needs to be legislated in order to come into effect.
The subsidy would be on 75 per cent of employees’ salaries, up to $847 a week per employee for 12 weeks, retroactive to March 15, for companies big and small as well as charities. Further tinkering to the eligibility was announced on Wednesday, with the intention of keeping as many Canadians employed despite the pandemic shutting down many aspects of society and the economy.
According to an email sent to Liberal MPs, all sides agreed there will be a limited number of MPs in the Chamber once again, with 14 Liberals, 11 Conservatives, 3 Bloc Quebecois, 3 NDP, and 1 Green.
There will also be “no pages, no food, no beverages,” according to the email.
MPs who had not been contacted to attend are being asked to stay home, in line with the needed physical distancing requirements and to limit the number of staff who will also be in West Block for the sitting.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted that a weekend session could be coming when asked during his daily address what his plans for the Easter long weekend were.
“I'm hoping to be able to see my family this weekend. Of course, the priority is ensuring that we're getting the legislation passed,” Trudeau said, adding that the broader conversation about the democratic process will be ongoing.
“We need to move forward on getting this legislation moving through the House so we can get the help out to Canadians, and that is my focus this weekend.”
Facing questions about why the parliamentary recall had yet to happen, Trudeau indicated that the speed bump was negotiating with the Conservatives over the idea of taking the democratic processes of Parliament online.
Scheer has said the closed-door conversations were not impacting the timeline of people receiving benefits and that it was about making sure the bill was closely scrutinized given the last emergency bill ended up being heavily amended before even being tabled on account of what he called an attempted power grab by the government.
Over the weekend, Rodriguez had written to Rota, asking for “advice and assistance on the ability for the House of Commons administration to support and facilitate virtual sittings...where it could conduct its regular business.”
As Trudeau put it, there should be a way that parliamentarians from across Canada can participate and represent their constituents during a time of crisis, without having to travel across the country during a pandemic.
Looking into ways the House can meet virtually would require considerable changes to the Standing Orders and will need other parties’ backing. If the recent all-virtual House committee meetings are any indication, extensive technical developments would be needed in order to make it feasible for 338 MPs -- or even 20 for quorum -- to conduct House business remotely.
Though, as Rota stated in his letter in response to Rodriguez, he has been consulting with other legislative bodies globally who are facing the same challenges.
He has asked House administration officials to work with public and private sector partners, “with goal of allowing the possibility for the House to hold virtual sittings within the next four weeks.”
In mid-March, Parliament was shut down and set to stay suspended until April 21 in an effort to squash the respiratory virus from spreading.
“Please be assured that the Administration -- and I as Speaker -- understand the essential and fundamental role that the House of Commons and its Members play both in advancing the legislative prerogatives of the government and in having it held accountable to Canadians, even during these difficult circumstances,” Rota wrote.